Interview with Theory and Diversity in Social Systems Specialist Professor Scott E. Page
I was lucky enough to get a few moments of time with Professor Scott E. Page to talk about his book The Diversity Bonus: How Great teams pay off in the knowledge economy. Scott E Page’s research focuses on complexity theory and diversity in social systems.  His most recent book, The Diversity Bonus, was published in September 2017 as a joint project from Princeton University Press and the Mellon Foundation.  His previous books include The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, and Complex Adaptive Social Systems.   The author of more than eighty research papers in fields ranging from economics, political science, sociology, psychology, philosophy, physics, public health, geography, computer science, and management, he is currently completing a book on interdisciplinary modelling.

scott-pageIn addition to his academic writing, Scott has filmed two video series for The Great Courses, and his online course Model Thinking has attracted over three quarters of a million participants. A frequent public speaker to corporations and government agencies including NASA, Bloomberg, Google, Boeing, the IMF, Genentech, Gilead, the United States Federal Reserve, and BlackRock, Scott has been a featured speaker at The New York Times New Work Summit, Google Re:Work,  The World Economic Forum – Davos, and The Aspen Ideas Festival.  In addition to his teaching, Scott has consulted with Yahoo! Ford, DARPA, Procter and Gamble, and AB InBev.

Professor Page has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship as well as fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford.  In 2011, he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

A native of Yankee Springs Michigan, Scott hold degrees in mathematics from The University of Michigan and The University of Wisconsin, and a degree in managerial economics and decision sciences from Northwestern University.

Scott lives in Ann Arbor, MI with political scientist Jenna Bednar, their two sons Orrie and Cooper, and their dogs Bounder and Oda.

Hello Scott, thank you for stopping by Activia’s Expert Insights section. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself for our readers?

I grew up on Gun Lake in Yankee Springs, Michigan.  My extended family ran a gas station on the lake that was open during the summers.  We also ran the concessions stands at the nearby state park.   Free gas.  Free fries.  Enough said – a happy upbringing.

I now live in beautiful Ann Arbor, Michigan with my wife, two sons, and two dogs where I work as a professor of complex systems at the University of Michigan.  I am also an external faculty member of the Santa Fe Institute.

I like ideas.  I studied math as an undergrad and graduate student.    I began my career as an economic theorist at Caltech.  A few years into my career, I pivoted and began studying complexity – that space between ordered and random.  My current work spans traditional academic disciplines.  Last year, I published papers in strategy, political science, economics, and philosophy.

What inspired you to write The Diversity Bonus: How Great teams Pay Off in the knowledge economy?

I felt I had an opportunity. Over the past decade, I have visited hundreds of organizations – from Google to BlackRock to the Department of Justice and NASA.  Wherever, I go I find that people promote thinking outside the box and interdisciplinary and cross disciplinary research.  All of these same organizations have diversity and inclusion initiatives.  Many, though not all, see being inclusive to identity diverse people from a normative standpoint– as “the right thing to do.”  They do not see the connection between identity diversity and cognitive diversity.
The book shows that on complex tasks, cognitive and identity diversity can produce bonuses.   On those tasks – and I should add those are the high value tasks in our modern economy -- there is no tradeoff.   Our differences – the various ways we think, interpret, categorize, and model – can make us collectively better.

Who is this book aimed at and how will it help them?

The book’s primary audience anyone who hires, manages, mentors, or works on a team - workers and managers in the knowledge economy.   The book will change who you hire, where you hire from, and how you compose teams.

The second audience is anyone who has to construct, implement, and provide logic for a diversity policy.  So many diversity mission statements and policies make no connection to performance.  This second audience includes HR Professionals, CEO’s, college presidents and deans, and heads of nonprofits.  The third audience is anyone who wants a deeper understanding of the importance of cognitive diversity in the knowledge economy and how our identity differences influence how we think.

What makes The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy unique? And why should someone pick up your book to read?

The book takes a scientific approach.  I include compelling stories but the core narrative rests on logic and data.   I have reluctantly accepted people saying “it’s a science of diversity.”   In the book, I walk through various frameworks to show when diversity produces bonuses and when it likely does not.   I am not presenting an opinion or promoting an ideology.

I am engaging the question like a scientist – a fun, open minded, wide ranging scientist.  The book discusses the similarities between Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks;  Magic Johnson’s mastery of the three point shot; and how Robert Johnson constructed the perfect cognitive “toolbox” to start BET.    I also cover women mathematicians, boosting algorithms in artificial intelligence, and Latino magazine.  To ensure gravitas, I explain “intersectionality” and quote both Abraham Lincoln and  Wendell Berry.

Why buy the book?   The book offers a novel lens through which to view our cognitive and identity differences.  The book strips away politics and ideology and lays out logic and facts.  It sheds light in a domain that has received a lot of heat.

Could you summarise The Diversity Bonus: How Great teams Pay Off in the knowledge economy?

The “elevator version” has three steps.  Step 1: logic and evidence show that cognitive diversity produces bonuses on the sort of complex tasks that predominate in the knowledge economy.  The book lays out that logic in a style that has been characterized as both lighthearted and clinical.  (The latter by an astronomer writing for a science!)
Step 2: identity diversity, to the extent it correlates with cognitive diversity, can also produce bonuses.   Step 3: achieving bonuses takes practice.  Not any diversity will work.  You must be wise in how you compose teams and you must create the right culture.

What is Thediversity-bonus Diversity Bonus?

The “bonus” refers to the demonstrable gain from different ways of thinking. When a group of diverse people make predictions, the group’s prediction will be more accurate than the prediction of the average person in the group.   That’s a mathematical fact.  It will always be true.   That’s a diversity bonus.  In contrast, a portfolio of stocks spreads risk but it produces no “bonus.” You just get the average payoff of the stocks.

Have you learnt anything new when writing your book?

Oh my yes.  My biggest learning?   The value of practice.  I may be academic, but this book leans heavily on my experiences out in the world.   Achieving bonuses requires thoughtful managers and leaders willing to learn and teach.  I have been humbled and awestruck by the talent of some managers.  Others?  Well…. They should totally buy the book.

The second biggest learning? The joy people take in achieving bonus.   The social science provides from an objective standpoint.   I show the logic for why bonuses exist and then present present empirical evidence (compiled by others) from 20 million papers and 5 million patents. That’s a 10,000 foot view.  When on the ground talking with people who engage in knowledge work, you become aware of how much fun it is to belong to a group that produces a large bonus.  When you get the bonus - when one plus one equals three - everyone feels this joy.

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

It is my hope that readers pause and engage the subtle parts of the book.  I devote several pages to analyzing the claim that that the best team consists of the best individual performers.

That claim holds for routine physical tasks – chopping down trees, filing papers, or packing boxes.  It is not true for most work in the knowledge economy.   On those tasks, the best team consists of talented, diverse people, not the “best” individual performers on some test.    The best teams are diverse.   That’s not an opinion.  It is not magical thinking.    It rests on logic.  I hope that people engage that logic.

You can purchase Scott . E Page book The Diversity Bonus: How Great teams pay off in the knowledge economy at Amazon.